When To Use Meeting Rituals

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Leading meetings is an art and a necessity. The difference between a meeting and a great meeting is most often made by the meeting owner. There are a few mandatory steps to go through if you want to bring your meetings to the next level. A very easy way to upgrade your regulars is to introduce some rituals. That does not mean that you should make your meetings fully predictable – it just means giving everybody some bootstraps to navigate through the meeting safely.

What Are Meeting Rituals?

First things first – let’s clarify what meeting rituals are. A ritual is a sequence of events, gestures, or actions, that are repeated and known to a certain cultural group. While the origin certainly lays in religious rituals, the word can also be used to describe common actions. In the work place, rituals are repeating sequences of actions that are known to a certain department, or even the whole company. In the context of a meeting, this might be how you open or close it, how you collect feedback and opinions, or how you proceed through the meeting time.

Why Structure Can Support You

Structuring your meeting can help you in several ways. It will support you with

  • Being clear on your meeting goal.
  • Focusing everybody’s attention on the important stuff.
  • Making it more natural to engage in discussions.

First, if you think about the way to structure your meeting, you need to have a clear goal. Just meeting and discussing something will work for some topics, but will make regular meeting quite exhausting. Discussion should always be part of something, and not the main act. Otherwise, you are in the danger of leading quite ineffective meetings – where you sit down, discuss a topic, and already know that you will do the same thing again next week. Adding a bit of structure to your meetings will automatically make them more solution-oriented.

Second, if you have a structure that everybody is aware of, you will release the meeting participants from wondering how to achieve the meeting goals. Instead, they will have free capacity to think of what to reach. Again, if there is a structure, it will automatically focus everybody’s attention on finding a solution instead of finding their way through the meeting.

Third, with a structure at hand, it will be more natural to engage in a vivid discussion. If the meeting participants are convinced that you have a clear picture of where you want to go, and where discussions should lead to, they will be more motivated to actively participate in them. This is of course highly depending on your company culture and group constitution, as well as on the topic – there are some topics which will always lead to discussions, and others where the room usually is quiet. However, having a structure will make it easier in both cases to navigate through the discussion and to find some valuable results in the end.

Rituals As Markers

Regular meetings usually need a connection to the previous meeting. Making it a habit to wrap up the previous meeting in the beginning is a great and easy way to remind everybody in the room of what happened last week (or even month). Do not make the mistake of using this ritual to remind yourself of what was happening! You as the meeting owner should always know this in advance. I would also recommend you to identify open ends from last meeting – evaluate whether they are still active, and bring them back as topics for this meeting.

Before you dive into one topic – and possibly spend the whole hour discussing it – make sure you have an overview over what needs to happen. Integrate some sort of topic collection into your meeting – either by asking everybody to add their topics to a shared document beforehand, or by collecting them during the meeting. Afterwards, you can vote on the topics to get an idea of their urgency (and also the interest of your meeting participants). There might be topics that do not seem to be important, but indeed are because other departments, your boss, or the whole company, are waiting for an answer. In this case, these should be marked and treated with priority.

In order to lead the discussions somewhere, make sure that everybody is aware what the outcome should be. Do you want to collect action items in a list? Do you want to have a written summary of the results? Try to always use the same forms in your regular meetings, so that the participants can get used to them. Knowing what to expect will make it much easier to engage in a discussion and to participate in a larger round.

Try to end your meetings a bit earlier, in order to allow for some questions and last-minute organizations. If you are aiming for 50 minutes instead of the full 60, you will always have ten minutes left if something is really important and cannot wait until next meeting. If there’s nothing on the table: Great, you can finish then minutes earlier and will have additional time to post-process the meeting and maybe write down some follow-ups.

Great Rituals That Make Great Meetings

  • Since last meeting: This one comes from agile stand-up meeting, in which the first question always is what has changed since the last meeting. Either have someone summarize this for the whole group, or have a quick check-in. Make sure it’s topic-related and focused on either wins, fails, or problems that occurred. Ask everybody to prepare this in advance – sometimes, it may be difficult for some of us to do this ad-hoc. If you make this a ritual, everybody will know what to expect and be prepared per default.
  • Naming the elephant: If you have several big and important topics, and you know you cannot possibly cover them all, have everybody close their eyes. Read the topics and ask them to raise their hand of they think this is the most important topic. Depending on the number of participants and topics, you can also have everybody vote twice or even three times. If it’s not necessary to vote anonymously, closing the eyes can be skipped.
  • The notetaker: It is not the law that you as the meeting owner must take the notes. Delegate this function to someone else – either according to a list of names, or ask for a volunteer. If you make this a ritual, your participants will know that one of them should take notes – and maybe someone will be brave after a few times who usually wouldn’t volunteer for such a task at all.
  • Smart action items: Make it a ritual to check if all your action items are SMART. If you notice that you have difficulties with getting everyone to use the SMART format, you can also gamify this part of the session and incentivize this step. If someone points out missing SMART formatting, they receive a point, and for a certain amount of points, there will be cookies, or a joint lunch time, or whatever you can think of.

The Most Important Ritual

I hope that you have realized how much influence a set structure might have for on your meetings. Resulting from the need of creating one, there is one ritual that is the most important one: Always prepare your meetings. As the meeting owner, you are the person who decides how efficient the meeting time will be used. Don’t waste it!

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